A sense of an ending

Twentieth Century: A History of the World 1901 to the Present

J M Roberts <em>Allen Lane, 856pp, £

We are fond of viewing history as chaos, but it is really only a mess. A wealth of evidence ruins a good story, putting so many brush strokes on the canvas that a picture can barely be discerned. Legend is the product of few accounts, history of many. The hardest task for the contemporary historian, writes J M Roberts in Twentieth Century, is to discriminate. Given the worthy attempt he makes in this book, one must allow for his modesty, but he is probably right that there is simply too much evidence to handle these days. It is understandable, therefore, that both Roberts and Martin Gilbert, in Challenge to Civilisation, should turn to the events that traditionally form the spine of a historical work. These are, once again, the battles. History as a tale of preparation for, and recovery from, the declaration of war.

The decision as to whether or not we should kill each other is more explicitly the subject of Jonathan Glover's Humanity. This is a philosopher's account of history, in which the sources are marshalled to reveal a terrible logic to the disasters and close escapes of the century. The problem with this approach is that there seems to be quite a profusion of logics at work in the events he so acutely examines. He is right that politicians and soldiers have often used their humanity as a bargaining chip to be shown or hidden in a game of self-interest. What is more questionable is the extent to which a better understanding of the rules can help. His own study of men such as Stalin shows that humanity cannot be presumed to be common ground. It also belies a selective approach to present modern technology and ideology as inevitably conspiring to keep our humanity buried. A fine book, Humanity is Glover's best and also the one he has always wanted to write, but the wider picture, though it lies outside its remit, is nonetheless an important omission.

Such histories of the century as Roberts and Gilbert have produced may seem premature at this stage, but in daring hindsight to refute them, these writers have shown good faith. The privileged position of hindsight can also be a platform for inanity. History books will always have to be written and PhD theses will always have to be submitted, and a germ of original thought is demanded of both. If these two accounts are to be overturned, then it is more likely to be from academic revisionism than a result of unforeseen world events. Whatever happens in the world, reinterpretation is inevitable. It certainly sells books. Some of our finest historians have long been writing in the service of a symmetry of words. Several of the most popular tomes of the past ten years have been products of ideas deemed too good not to be true, or at least written about. Take, for example, the view advanced that the first world war was prolonged beyond necessity because its participants enjoyed fighting so much, or the thesis that the Germans were Hitler's willing executioners. This is not to say that truth cannot be arrived at by such means. It is at least suspicious, however, that no philosopher has ever presented a theory of his own invention in which he did not also profess belief. In history anything can happen, but only in the works of historians does everything happen.

The historian can always opt to describe before he explains. The most brutish of facts, it might be said, require little in the way of interpretation. There is little time for description, however, in any reasonably comprehensive history of an entire century. Of the two, Gilbert's brings us closer to the sources, and these provide the most enjoyment and provoke the most interest. Covering Khrushchev's visit to the United States, for example, the author inserts the Russian leader's response when he was refused entry to Disneyland: "Why cannot I go to Disneyland? Do you have rocket launching-pads there?"

History in the grand sense has dominated human lives for relatively short periods even in this most historical of centuries. If it is suffering that makes history, then war lags far behind disease and other depredations. Though he lingers on conflicts, Gilbert's account retains a sense of proportion by accompanying each encounter with the number of deaths in road accidents in the same period. He notes that there have been more fatalities on the roads of Israel in the first 50 years of that nation's existence than were suffered by her armed forces in all its wars put together.

Such number crunching brings further illumination elsewhere, notably in "Mrs Thatcher Remembers", Julian Barnes's contribution to the excellent Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays. One thousand eight hundred Falkland Islanders were liberated from Argentina at a cost of just over 1,000 lives, 255 of them British. The victory was a great feat of arms, yet had the figures displayed similar proportions in the 1944 reinvasion of France, there would have been a toll of 23 million lives, 6 million of them Allied.

History "proper" - that is, violent history - inspires only a minority of the efforts here. Even in the uncertain days of 1941, George Orwell could write of the limits of the historical experience in "England Your England". Writing in "My War", the literary academic Paul Fussell remembers that the thought that his platoon was at least "making history" got him through his time as a terrified young officer in France. "But we didn't even do that," he adds. "Liddell Hart's 766-page history of the second world war never heard of us . . . The only satisfaction history has offered is the evidence that we caused Josef Goebbels some extra anxiety."

The essayist has only to dwell on the spirit of the moment where the historian faces the labour of documents and correspondence. The zeitgeist is a less punishing, if more dubious, historical source, but on the strength of this collection of essays, the result can present an equally faithful record of our time.

Nicholas Fearn is compiling a guide to philosophy

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser